Speed, Exercise, and Freedom for Women

The rise of bicycles didn’t just make physical activity an enjoyable pastime in America. It actually played a role in women’s rights, allowing them access to less restrictive clothing and the opportunity to journey farther from the home.

| February 2017

  • “What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women.”
    Photo by Fotolia/petunyia
  • “The Mechanical Horse: How the Bicycle Reshaped American Life” by Margaret Guroff.
    Cover courtesy University of Texas Press

Biking in the US is growing in popularity. Indeed, since the introduction of the machine two centuries ago new generations have discovered and rediscovered the benefits of this simple means of transportation. In The Mechanical Horse (University of Texas Press, 2016), Margaret Guroff explains how bicycles have played an integral role in this country’s society, encouraging paved streets, long-distance travel, and routine exercise. Because of their accessibility and the ease with which they made other things possible, bikes have opened the door for wide horizons of thought for those in all avenues of life.

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In the 1890s, bikes got lighter as well as more comfortable. The average weight of a bicycle dropped by more than half during the decade’s first five years, falling from fifty pounds to twenty-three. And since new gearings were able to mimic wheels larger than those of the largest Ordinary, speed records fell too. In 1894, while riding a pneumatic-tired safety around a track in Buffalo, New York, the racer John S. Johnson went a mile in just over one minute and thirty-five seconds, a rate of nearly thirty-eight miles an hour. He beat the previous mile record for a safety by fourteen seconds, and the record for an Ordinary by nearly a minute — and the record for a running horse by one-tenth of a second.

The Ordinary — which had by then acquired the derisive nickname of “penny-farthing,” after the old British penny and much smaller farthing (quarter-penny) coins — became obsolete. High-wheelers that had sold for 150 to 300 dollars just a year or two earlier were going for as little as 10.

The first safeties, meanwhile, cost an average of 150 dollars during a time when the average worker earned something like 12 dollars a week. At such prices, the new bikes targeted the same upscale demographic as the tricycle. But a strong market for safeties among well-to-do women goosed production, and competition among manufacturers reduced prices, making the bikes affordable to more would-be riders — and further fueling demand. In 1895, America’s three hundred bicycle companies produced 500,000 safeties at an average price of 75 dollars, according to one encyclopedia’s yearbook. Even manufacturers were surprised at the demand among women, who thrilled to the new machine’s exhilarating ride. As one female journalist wrote, “If a pitying Providence should suddenly fit light, strong wings to the back of a toiling tortoise, that patient cumberer of the ground could hardly feel a more astonishing sense of exhilaration than a woman experiences when first she becomes a mistress of her wheel.”

It wasn’t just that women enjoyed the physical sensation of riding — the rush of balancing and cruising. What made the bicycle truly liberating was its fundamental incompatibility with many of the limits placed on women. Take clothing, for example. Starting at puberty, women were expected to wear heavy floor-length skirts, rigid corsets, and tight, pointy-toed shoes. These garments made any sort of physical exertion difficult, as young girls sadly discovered. “I ‘ran wild’ until my sixteenth birthday, when the hampering long skirts were brought, with their accompanying corset and high heels,” recalled the temperance activist Frances Willard in an 1895 memoir. “I remember writing in my journal, in the first heartbreak of a young human colt taken from its pleasant pasture, ‘Altogether, I recognize that my occupation is gone.’” Reformers had been calling for more sensible clothing for women since the 1850s, when the newspaper editor Amelia Bloomer wore the baggy trousers that critics named after her, but rational arguments hadn’t made much headway.

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